Last week, George Soros — “the billionaire financier who was an energetic Democratic donor in the last several election cycles,” according to the New York Times — announced he was sitting out the 2010 race because “I don’t believe in standing in the way of [a Republican] avalanche.”
Today, National Public Radio announced a $1.8 million grant from Soros’s Open Society Foundations for an “Impact of Government” initiative that will eventually “add editorial resources and reporters to NPR member stations in all 50 states.”
It’s another exciting newsroom-enhancing infusion for public radio on the heels of MPR honcho Bill Kling’s $100 million plan to hire 300 journalists spread over four test markets.
But at the very least, Soros’s involvement raises conflict-of-interest questions. Regular readers of MinnPost comments know the Pavlovian response Soros inspires from at least one conservative, and right-wing icon Glenn Beck has declared Soros “the head of the snake.” (You can imagine the consternation from the left if billionaire Tea Party funder David Koch was giving the grant.)
According to the press release, Soros money will fund the “year-long pilot phase with station partners in eight states, allowing NPR to staff a new team of editors and data-analysts to run the project.” Those stations have not been selected. Will MPR be signing up?
“Too soon to tell, but we’ll take a close look at it,” MPR News managing director Chris Worthington says.
As I’ve written about our own shop, donor entanglements — like advertiser entanglements — are fair game, especially in a profession that writes about political conflicts of interest all the time.
But when it comes to quid pro quos, NPR and MPR honchos would certainly assert, as MinnPost boss Joel Kramer declared this summer, that “donors buy no influence, period.” Although MPR’s donor rolls are stuffed with politically active people, the news network has built a 40-year reputation as an honest political broker among all but the hardest-core partisans. For now, the concerns are only theoretical, but hopefully MPR will be fully transparent if it accepts the Soros funds.